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How to Sort Common Recyclables

Contamination is a consistent problem for single-stream recycling. Learning to sort your recyclables properly can save your business time and money.

Ryan Deer | February 24, 2021


The biggest myth of the entire U.S. recycling system is that it works like the postal service. For mail, your carrier makes the drop-off at a sorting facility, where orderly conveyor belts and slides filter envelopes and packages, ensuring they find their way to the right destination.

For the centerpiece of the American recycling effort, MRFs (or materials recovery facilities), it isn’t so fine-tuned.

That’s because, at the very beginning of the process, the handoff is being fumbled. While a letter is given a clearly written destination and categorical postage from the sender (you), our mixed-up system—where unrelated recyclables all go in the same receptacle—leaves their fate up for interpretation.

Tasked with playing a high-speed matching game, complicated by contamination and mechanical failure, MRF workers attempt to separate the 294 million tons (and growing) of solid waste Americans generate per year into six or more streams—cardboard with cardboard, plastic with plastic, glass with glass, etc.

When the facilities fail to separate your plastics from someone else’s glass or cardboard, waste management services can’t resell it because of astronomically high quality standards—meaning the whole stream gets stuck in limbo. 

Since there is no return-to-sender option, about 80% of your business’s well-intentioned recyclables end up at the landfill.

While there’s a smarter way this can work—which we’ll cover next—knowing how you can improve the process from the start is vital. Stick with us as we show you why the value in sorting, prepping, and packaging your recyclables is as undeniable as a Forever Stamp.

Two Ways About It

When businesses and individuals don’t sort their recyclable materials, dumpsters and bins effectively become mini urban landfills. And that’s because of single-stream recycling.

To understand how we got here, here’s an excerpt from our blog series How to Recycle in America:

“Single-stream [recycling] was supposed to be revolutionary. Widely adopted by municipalities and businesses around the United States in the late ’90s, it provided a convenience factor that allowed participation to skyrocket. This aspirational program is now falling miles short of expectation due to contamination and the unforeseen acceleration of America's wasteful ways.”

How short? The EPA projects that 75% of that waste can be recycled, yet the national recycling rate was 32.1% as of 2018. 

Now, with the EPA setting an overly ambitious goal of a 50% recycling rate by 2030, we’re going to have to get considerably better at sorting. And, unfortunately, the MRF technology is not up to speed.

That’s why RoadRunner Recycling has a model that makes sorting more efficient: bypassing the MRF entirely.

[Video: How Clean-stream Recycling Works]

RoadRunner partners with businesses, auditing their waste streams and identifying what type and how much material is being generated. Using custom algorithms to build smarter pickup routes and a network of third-party truck owners (think moving companies and small freight delivery services), RoadRunner gets your separated material streams to their designated recycling facility as smoothly and quickly as possible.

Animated gif showing a multiple trucks picking up recyclable materials.

Using our postal service analogy, think of RoadRunner’s clean-stream recycling service like getting free shipping insurance. And because we drive fewer miles, don’t need to pay landfill tipping fees, and make it easy to avoid contamination charges, you’ll recycle more and save big.

Partner with us!

However, this doesn’t work without a little active participation. Regardless of who hauls, knowing some basic principles of sorting will always pay off.

How to Prep, Sort, and Save Your Recyclables

Illustrations of cardboard boxes that are open and closed.

The cardboard stream includes OCC (old corrugated cardboard) and oftentimes paper bags (like those found at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods). Corrugated cardboard is easily recognizable for its multiple layers of paper and wavy inner profile. Of note, 90% of all products shipping in the U.S. use corrugated.

- Cardboard boxes should be broken down flat, like this. 

- Keep cardboard and paperboard products dry and covered against rainfall.

- Do not bundle, bind, or bag your cardboard using plastic material.

- Do not attempt to recycle cardboard with grease stains or food residue.


Illustration of paper products like newspapers, an envelope, a paper airplane, a stack of papers, and office paper.

Paper is a broad stream that can include colored paper, newspapers, magazines, mail, envelopes, paper bags, sticky notes, and shredded paper. Americans use 83M pounds of paper per year; if recycled properly, it’d be equivalent to saving 220,365 trees.

- Paperboard containers and boxes should be broken down and flattened.

- Loose sheets of assorted paper can be stacked.

- Paperclips and staples do not need to be removed.

- Do not attempt to recycle used paper towels or napkins.

- Do not attempt to recycle waxy paperboard, like those used for margarine boxes and Tyvek mailers.


Illustration of plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic utensils, and plastic takeout containers.

Plastic refers to a group of polymer-based materials that include polyethylene (used in plastic bags), polystyrene (aka Styrofoam), polypropylene (used for kitchen containers and straws), polyvinyl chloride (aka PVC), and more. Plastics are stamped with numbered symbols by type.

- Some plastic numbers are accepted and some aren’t—thankfully, we have a guide for that.

- Plastics with food residue are often rejected and can contaminate other materials.

- Do not bag mixed recyclables; keep them loose.

- Do not put any plastics smaller than a credit card or larger than two gallons in your bin.

- Bottles and their caps are often made of different plastics. Check with your hauler if caps are accepted, and if they are, ensure you leave the cap off of the bottle for the bin.


Illustration of a aluminum can, tin can, and tuna can.

The aluminum and tin stream includes cans commonly used for soda, beer, shelf-safe vegetables, tuna, and more, as well as tinfoil.

- Empty or rinse cans to eliminate food residue and carbonation foam.

- Do not attempt to recycle scrap aluminum or steel from construction or car projects.

- Do not attempt to recycle foil-wrapped beverage pouches.

- Do not attempt to recycle paint cans or aerosols; contact your hauler directly.


Illustration of a glass bottle and glass jar.

The glass stream includes beer and wine bottles, food jars, and traditional kitchen glassware. Glass is endlessly recyclable, never degrading in quality. However, many municipalities and haulers have discontinued glass service because of high contamination rates and the unfavorable economics of transporting it to faraway buyers. Tip: Try this map to find a drop-off center near you.

- Both clear and colored glass (amber, green, or blue) are accepted.

- Remove metal caps and lids, as well as corks, from bottles before placing them in the bin.

- Do not attempt to recycle ceramic baking dishes or mugs.

- Do not attempt to recycle Pyrex cookware, plate glass windows, lightbulbs, or mirrors.


Illustration of compostable items and food waste with a paper towel roll, apple core, and banana peel.


Food waste is not an accepted material in mainstream recycling. It often exists as a municipality compost program or add-on service—RoadRunner manages pickups for businesses and restaurants as well. Unless provided a designated receptacle or drop-off location, leave this out.

- For a list of what constitutes a compost stream, check out our guide.

- Do not leave food waste or residue on any other recyclable streams.

- Do not attempt to recycle plastic/foil coffee pods.

All these streams are a lot to manage by yourself, and it’s clear to see how easily a business could rack up contamination fees and unexpected charges. With a partner like RoadRunner, our expertise, technology, solution-oriented service is guaranteed to help you increase recycling rates and decrease costs—all while making your business, and the planet, cleaner.



Let's get the conversation started on how to drive recycling and cost savings for your business.